How to raise kids in a prejudiced world

A wonderful new book gives parents the tools to raise anti-racist kids.

Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science and parenting journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.

Welcome to my third #ParentExpertQ&A, this time with U.K. journalist Uju Asika, author of the very important book Bringing Up Race: How to Raise a Kind Child in a Prejudiced World, which was released in the U.S. last week. Publisher’s Weekly gave her book a Starred review, calling it “a powerful take on an attentive, thoughtful, and anti-racist parenting philosophy.” I highly recommend that all parents read it — it’s beautiful and inspiring — and I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview Uju for my newsletter.

What inspired you to write Bringing Up Race?

The initial push came from a relative and I was quite resistant at first. I didn’t want to write about race, I certainly didn’t see myself as a “race expert” or anything of the sort. However, I’ve come to recognize that a whole lot of my hesitation was what Steven Pressfield would call “Resistance.” In his book The War of Art, he describes Resistance as the unseen force that pushes back whenever you’re about to create something truly valuable.

Anyway, I decided to go for it when I thought about all the people it could impact if I wrote the book in my own voice. I thought it would be helpful for parents to hear from a mother rather than an academic. Bringing Up Race gave me an opportunity not only to tell my story as a Black mom but also to hear from families of different ethnicities. I wanted to get a variety of stories into the book so that readers could see themselves reflected in it, as well as learn from and empathize with other experiences.

You discuss the importance of talking regularly and openly about racial differences with children. Can you explain a bit about why?

As I explain in Bringing Up Race, kids start noticing race from the time they’re babies. However, adults often avoid talking about race with their children because it’s awkward or because they’re stuck in “colorblind mode.” In other words, they’re trying to raise their kids as if race and ethnicity don’t matter. This might feel ok if you’re White and you’ve never had to worry about racial injustice. 

But for Black and Brown people, pretending you don’t see our color (and therefore our struggles) is a form of erasure. If you don’t talk openly with your kids about race, they’ll start to treat it as an unmentionable topic. They’ll make up their own ideas or just run with whatever society tells them — which is mostly negative and deeply harmful to people of color. 

Children start showing signs of racial bias from around ages 2 or 3, so it’s really important for parents to intervene early. Don’t worry if it’s awkward, the goal is to start a conversation and keep these conversations going. Eventually, talking about race with your children should become a normal part of everyday life.

In your book, you talk about how you might address a child who asks about the meaning and value of Black Lives Matter versus All Lives Matter. Can you share some of that insight?

In some ways, the phrase Black Lives Matter is deliberately jarring. It should unsettle people because it’s shocking that in 2021, we are still having to campaign for Black lives. Unfortunately some adults choose to stay triggered over the phrase, rather than focusing on what needs to change.

To explain Black Lives Matter versus All Lives Matter to a child, it’s quite simple. You could give the example of campaigning to “Save the Whales.” Nobody comes out arguing “All Creatures Need Saving.” That would be weird. Even a small child can understand that “Save the Whales” is about raising awareness to help whales and that you’re not suggesting other creatures aren’t important. When you want to call attention to something, you name it specifically. Black Lives Matter calls attention to the fact that, under White supremacy, Black lives seem to matter less. Tell your children that when you support Black Lives Matter, you are showing support for all humanity, not just Black lives. Because none of us truly matter until all of us do.

How should parents talk to their kids about white-on-Black police violence? How should we talk about the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, Ma'Khia Bryant, and so many others?

First, consider the age of your child. You don’t want to say stuff to young kids that might terrify them. Also, no matter their age, I recommend avoiding graphic images and videos of Black people (or any people) being brutalized. It’s dehumanizing and serves no real educational purpose. At the same time, you should be as open and direct with your children as possible when discussing these issues. If your child is really little, keep your language simple. You can say that some police have been hurting Black people really badly. Explain that this is racist because it is mostly White police shooting Black people. People of all races have been coming together to call for justice because nobody should be in fear of their life because of the color of their skin. 

You can talk with your child about what you can do when somebody needs help or something needs to change. Can you march, write a protest letter, put up a picture or a sign to show your support? Encourage them to come up with their own ideas too. For older children, you can be more specific about the stories they might have heard in the news or at school. Talk about what basic steps they can follow to try and stay safe if they are stopped by police or if they see somebody in a police encounter. You can also read or watch relevant stories together and discuss what you’ve learned. Check out the picture book Something Happened in Our Town or, for older kids, The Hate U Give (also a great movie).

You suggest that parents be intentional about the books they read with their kids, that representation matters — and that representation refers to more than just race. Can you explain more about what you mean? 

It’s very easy as a new parent to just go for the so-called “classic” children’s literature. But you can soon wind up with a very monotone bookshelf in terms of voice and perspective. Reading is one of the best ways to open your child up to the world. It also helps them develop empathy for different experiences. Buy books with the intention of making sure your kids get to know and empathize with a wide range of human stories. It’s important not only for Black and Brown kids but for White kids to read more books that centre Black characters. It’s not healthy to raise White children who can only imagine themselves and people who look like them in the starring roles. 

You can do the same with movies and TV shows too. Look for stories that don’t relegate Black, Asian, Latino and indigenous people to the sassy sidekick, geeky roommate or ‘wise’ old buddy. Seek out stories that feature strong female leads too as well as LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities. We all need to see ourselves at the heart of the story and we need to see each other there too. One series I loved for this is Raising Dion on Netflix. It stars a young Black boy with superpowers who is raised by a single mum. His best friend is a sparky girl who happens to be in a wheelchair (but this isn’t her defining characteristic). The show also handles talking about race with your child in a sensitive and poignant way.

What kinds of things can parents do to raise global citizens, even if they don't have the means to travel a lot?

We live at a time when the world is at our fingertips, thanks to the internet. It’s astonishing to me that I can go on Google Earth and look at live images from the street where I grew up in eastern Nigeria. Traveling overseas is a wonderful way to broaden your children’s horizons. However, travel is a state of mind. In Bringing Up Race, I recommend several ways to raise your children with a global mindset. As mentioned, books and movies can open your kids up to new cultures, places and people. My boys have started speaking basic Japanese thanks to all the anime they watch these days! 

Try learning other languages with your child, even a word or a new sentence every day. Be adventurous with food and cook recipes from other countries. Visit neighborhoods where you and your kids can mingle with people from different backgrounds. Seek out opportunities through school, sports clubs, community groups or (safe) online networks for your children to make friends and have play dates with a diverse mix of kids. Studies have shown that one way to improve race relations is by forming genuine relationships across racial and ethnic lines. It’s not an instant fix for racism of course, but it’s a great place to start.

Bringing Up Race: How to Raise a Kind Child in a Prejudiced World is available at all good bookstores including Bookshop (which supports independent bookstores), Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Other news: I was on The Mom Feed podcast! Check it out — it was a really fun conversation that covered all sorts of parenting topics: Fostering resiliency in kids, engaging in collaborative problem-solving, controlling your temper as a parent, and why I wrote my book How To Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes.

Pre-order now!